Issue of July 27, 2014
Mt. Province

Courier Anniversary Issue
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Acid Test for Benguet

Whether or not it is part of a unified effort or a confluence of events, the filing of cases against violators of Presidential Decree 705 or the Revised Forestry Code in Mt. Pulag and Mt. St. Tomas appears to represent a new-found resolve by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Benguet to stop the bleeding attributed to massive conversion of forestlands into farmlands as well as wanton illegal tree cutting in both forest reserves.

It is a long-delayed come-down from the fence but it does not come late in the day. It also comes at a time when the major stakeholders – provincial and local officials, the Office of the Congressman of Baguio, the DENR, and the Philippine National Police – are aligned on the same page.

The message: Both mountains should be preserved as forest reserves.

In Bokod, that resolve is bolstered by the provincial and municipal task forces against illegal logging as well as the deployment of police and army units to ensure that violators will not get away with their wrongdoings.

In Tuba, the filing of the cases comes at a time when the DENR and the municipal government have just wrapped up a forest land use plan that sought to preserve Mt. Sto. Tomas and the other forests as reservations.

That Baguio Rep. Nicasio Aliping would end up principal respondent in the cases appears to arise from his reply to a cease and desist order issued by Tuba Mayor Florencio Bentrez against the earthmoving activities in Mt. Sto. Tomas.

In that letter, Aliping bared he was undertaking measures to avoid further damage to the plants, trees, and Dam 3 of the Baguio Water District.

He also wrote a letter requesting endorsement for a road excavation leading to his supposed claim in Sitio Kabuyao.

The earthmoving and the destruction of trees were what compelled the DENR to file a complaint against him and the three construction firms for perceived violations of the Forestry Code.

The solon in his affidavit denied violating the law, and that the road opening or the felled trees as alleged were outside of his claimed property. He added his claim amounted to only 2.6885 hectares, as opposed to 2012 when he told the Tuba council he was developing a Kabuyao Cliff Nature and Adventure site on his 16-hectare claim.

In a region where lesser men were sent to jail for having been involved in the cutting of trees of much lesser volume, the cases marshaled against the solon takes on added significance in the light of the resolve of the province and the DENR to protect what remains of the forest reserves – hence the public interest and concern generated on how the cases in Mt. Pulag and Mt. Sto. Tomas would be resolved. Certainly, the law should be allowed to take its course.

It is worth noting, however, that any resolution absolving the accused is bound to dampen any resolve to protect the forests, emboldening individuals to destroy these resources with impunity or to reclassify forest lands as the Sto. Tomas situation seemed to suggest. On the other hand, there is a chance the cases will be weighed based on their merits and those accused of wrongdoing will be indicted accordingly.

It is Benguet’s most acid test yet. For if the destruction of both mountains is not checked at this stage, what’s preventing individuals, high and low, from taking over parts of the mountains for their own selfish ends?

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